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Rutgers professor's research on interstellar turbulence wins female astronomer award

Blakesley Burkhart, a future assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and recipient of the award, said it was the oldest award given out by the American Astronomical Society  – Photo by

An incoming Rutgers professor has recently won the Annie Jump Cannon Award for her research on magnetic turbulence in the universe. 

Blakesley Burkhart, a future assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and recipient of the award, said it was the oldest award given out by the American Astronomical Society (AAS). First conceived in the 1930s, the prize was inspired by female astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, who worked at Harvard University cataloging stars. 

Cannon faced discrimination as a woman working in a male-dominated field, so to acknowledge future female astronomers, the award is given annually to women who do notable research in the field of astronomy.

The prize has also shifted throughout the decades. Winners used to only get physical prizes, such as a plaque or pen, but now they also get the opportunity to speak at a plenary sponsored by the AAS. This increased the prestige of the award compared to others given by the AAS, and also helped to raise the status of women in astronomy because they were given a platform to explain their research. 

“(It’s) an awesome, big deal because it’s in front of the entire conference, which is usually a thousand people,” Burkhart said.

Burkhart's research focuses on turbulence, which is something that people are very familiar with, she said. For instance, when people travel on airplanes or go canoeing, the bumps they feel when they are flying or the swirls produced by paddling are concepts that are very similar to how turbulence works in outer space. 

The concept of how liquids and gases move, otherwise known as fluid dynamics, is also important in explaining many processes in the galaxy. Contrary to popular belief, the space between stars is not empty, Burkhart said. Between them is the interstellar medium, which is matter and radiation such as gas, dust and cosmic rays. 

What differs between fluids in outer space and earth is the fact that the interstellar medium is charged due to the high amount of electrons floating in the universe. This is why gases in the interstellar medium are much more turbulent than on earth, reaching velocities faster than 10 kilometers a second, Burkhart said. Throughout outer space are magnetic fields, which exert a force on charged gases. 

“There’s this conversation, or this dance, between the charged particles in the fluid and the magnetic field in our galaxy, and that does all sorts of interesting things,” she said.

Phenomena such as supernova explosions are a direct result of turbulence in outer space. The idea of turbulence also leads to implications for how stars are formed and the evolution of galaxies, which are questions Burkhart is trying to answer through her research.

Stars are made by gas and dust in the interstellar medium, and turbulence influences factors such as how fast they form, what kind of stars they become and their size. The more turbulent the gases which forms the stars are, the denser they become, which has profound effects on what types of stars form. 

The effects of turbulence can also be brought down to earth, Burkhart said. Aurora borealis, known also as the Northern Lights, is caused by the wind from the sun reaching Earth. Like gases in the interstellar medium, the wind contains charged particles that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field to produce the bursts of light which make up the phenomenon. 

While Burkhart is an astrophysicist, she is also hoping to promote more women in classrooms as well as positions of leadership in the scientific field. She said she was sometimes the only female in her classes while pursuing her studies. The Annie Jump Cannon Award has allowed her to meet other female scientists who are also doing prominent research in astronomy.

“If you have a supportive environment where you feel safe and welcome, then you can thrive. Instead of thinking about how awkward it can be, you could instead focus on physics,” she said.

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